If you follow the indie game scene closely, you might recognize Dome Keeper as Dome Romantik, which was created within 72 hours as part of the Ludum Dare 49 game jam. So as you might expect, this game revolves around a concept that’s quick and easy to understand: mine resources underground, use those resources to upgrade your dome, defeat a wave of shadow monsters, and then start the cycle over again. Its back-to-basics approach boils down other roguelike titles such as Returnal and Hades into its simplest components, which is both its strength and its weakness. For a quick run or two, Dome Keeper is a strong arcade-like survival game that tests your time management skills, but after a handful of playthroughs, you’ll pretty much figure out how it all works, while being pushed to stick with roughly the same optimal build every time.
Between a hard place and a lot of rocks
The gameplay loop for Dome Keeper is short and sweet, challenging you to strengthen your dome fast enough to find a relic hidden in the deepest layers underground. The same goes for the story, which doesn’t explain (and doesn’t really need to explain) why you’re crashing onto a hostile planet to strip-mine resources and eradicate monsters. At any rate, after you choose your weapon — either a basic laser beam or a hard-to-master rope-sword that has a shield that can deflect projectiles — you’ll fly down toward the surface of the planet like one of the Attack Ball spaceships from Dragonball Z. You actually crash-land on top of what looks like a shadowy humanoid (who I think is your character from prior run throughs), before being immediately tasked to start drilling.
Upgrading your dome requires that you locate three resources — iron, water, and cobalt — with as much efficiency as you can muster. Iron, the most abundant and most important resource, typically appears in large clusters, forcing you to calculate how many pieces you can carry back to the dome after considering your current top speed and carry load. So long as you upgrade those two stats, along with your overall drill strength, you’ll usually have enough time to haul two loads of resources before the next wave of monsters begins.
Ultimately, Dome Keeper becomes an engineering problem where every last second counts. Activating your console to upgrade your dome or enter battle mode will thankfully pause the game, but that’s just about the only mental breather you’ll get. How many resources will you risk carrying to the surface? How long will you risk mining? How should you carve routes for maximum coverage in the shortest amount of time? Should you upgrade your base stats or bolster your dome’s weapons and defenses? These questions will continue to race in your mind as you rush toward the final relic.
Defense isn’t challenging, at least at first, though some damage will likely get through no matter what you do. Regardless of which weapon you select, it will either not have enough power to damage enemies fast enough or not have enough maneuvering speed to swiftly cover the left and right flanks of the dome. Add in several flying monsters that throw pesky projectiles from multiple angles, and you'll be lucky to get through a wave without finding more cracks in the glass.
As a runthrough progresses, enemies grow in number and overall power, you will need to rely on your starting gadget and any minor relics you find to bolster your defenses. For gadgets, you can choose between a basic shield that mitigates damage, a repellent that delays the start of the next wave, and an orchard tree that grows fruit that gives you a small boost to top speed and drill strength. The repellent can also slow enemies down with a mist, while the tree can ensnare non-flying enemies with its roots.
If you manage to bring back a minor relic to the dome, you can select between two random devices or scrap it for extra cobalt, which can be used to repair your dome. Some of the stronger devices include the condenser that creates extra water for free, the converter that can change cobalt into many units of iron, and the teleporter that saves a lot of time. There's also a probe that reveals resources, though you'll still want to check areas with no resources to see if they’re hiding a relic. A lift can be installed as well that automatically carries resources upwards, but it's so slow that it's usually better to carry them yourself. Last but not least, you can find a raptor-like Drillbert that will mine for you; however, you have to wake it up on occasion and control where it digs, eating up precious seconds due to management.
What's wrong, dome-doctor?
The trouble with Dome Keeper is that, even on the lowest Normal difficulty setting, the relatively low amount of resources means that gameplay favors very specific builds. Sure, there's a smorgasbord of upgrades to choose from, but more than a handful of them are undeniably essential: the wave timer, the resource inventory indicator, weapon power, weapon speed, drill strength, carry load, and top speed. Then there are other core upgrades like increased dome health and dome hardening that are always solid choices and usually better than everything else on offer. With what little resources you have left over, you might be able to invest in maybe three or four upgrade trees, out of a possible fifteen or more, for gadgets and relics. On Hard and Brutal difficulty, the selection of efficient upgrades narrows even further.
More features like Prestige mode and modifiers become available near the end of the game's progression of unlockables, but even with them applied, the general gameplay loop doesn't change that much. The game has the right idea with several random areas underground that give you a mineral seed or a one-way portal that recharges over time. More surprises like these, perhaps consumables, temporary buffs, or on-the-fly challenges, would breathe more life into each run. Introducing a different group of enemies or random mini-bosses would help elevate wave defenses too.
You know the drill
Priced at under $20, Dome Keeper will keep you on your toes for several mining sessions. Its cyclical design is simple and executed fairly well, keeping the tension consistent throughout a run. However, upgrades quickly become restrictive in terms of effective builds, and both mining and defense become predictable in subsequent playthroughs. That said, the game has plenty of room for future updates that could help balance things out. Dome Keeper, without taking too many risks, fits simply and innocuously inside the world of the iterative survival genre.
This review is based on a Steam copy supplied by the publisher. Dome Keeper is available on PC on September 27, 2022.
- Easy-to-understand iterative concept
- Fantastic for a quick session or two
- An alright number of variations, modifiers, and relics
- Nice pixel art
- Many essential upgrades and lack of resources narrow builds
- Mining could have more randomness
- Enemies could use more variety
- Gameplay becomes predictable after several playthroughs